29 November 2008

Never Shower in a Thunderstorm by Anahad O'Connor

Anahad O'Connor is the “Really?” columnist for the New York Times, where he questions the veracity of old wives' tales, folk-wisdom, and popular medical mysteries. In Never Shower in a Thunderstorm, O'Connor debunks such myths as the idea that cracking your knuckles causes arthritis and that celery has negative calories, while proving other myths … such as the one mentioned in the title.

Yes, you can be electrocuted while showering in a thunderstorm. Lightning that hits a building can travel through the plumbing, along metal pipes, and directly into a metal tap or faucet; additionally, tap water makes an excellent conductor because of impurities and minerals.

While I found Never Shower in a Thunderstorm to be a fun little book well suited for skimming, I was frustrated by the lack footnotes or a bibliography necessary for a more thorough understanding of the science behind the answers. It’s an extremely entertaining book, but citations would have made it even better.

Don’t like the concept enough to buy the book or get it out from the library? O’Connor’s "Really" column is archived on the New York Times website.

A~Z Reading Challenge “N” title: Anahad O'Connor's Never Shower in a Thunderstorm (Times Books, 2007).

Charming Chairman Charmain

A~Z Reading Challenge “J” author: Diana Wynne Jone's The House of Many Ways (Greenwillow, 2008).

Many year’s ago, I fell upon and devoured Diana Wynne Jones’s The Chronicle’s of Chrestomanci -- omnibuses of extremely funny, well-written, and well-plotted stories about an elegant gentleman who just happened to be the magician in charge of all the magic everywhere.

Ever after that I carried a bit of a torch for Wynne Jones. This was only reinforced by Howl’s Moving Castle (both the novel and the film) -- another extremely funny, well-written and well-plotted romance about cursed girl, a “bad” magician, a fire demon, and a castle that moves.

So I picked up The House of Many Ways with great delight ... and put it down with something resembling discontent. This novel, I felt, was just not good enough. It wanted shoring up and filling out. It was, basically, not the novel I was expecting.

The story was certainly promising:

Charmain Baker wants to work in the King's library, but her family has no interest in what she wants. Her obnoxious aunt railroads Charmain's mother into sending the girl to house-sit for Great Uncle William, the Royal Wizard Norland. Charmain, though, is pretty useless for doing anything in the world except for eating and reading and so, of course, is incapable of keeping Great Uncle William's house without suffering a few disasters.

And then there is the boy. And a dog. And angry kobolds. And magical tea trays.

Sounds charming, doesn't it? And yet I was wholly discontented. Why? Well, Charmain and Peter never developed into “real” sympathetic characters, but just seemed like types. Types I kept losing patience with. Then the storyline involving Howl and Sophie seemed shoehorned in as if, perhaps, Wynne Jones worried the Charmain-Peter-Uncle William story wasn't good enough to hold readers. Oh, and the final plot resolution required far too much exposition! Seriously, all the principle characters sat around in a room talking about whodunwhat and why before skiving off to Happily Ever After.

AND, most frustratingly, I spent the entire novel calling Charmain “Chairman.”

Now, I feel I need to go back and re-read Wynne Jones’s The Chronicle’s of Chrestomanci to determine if my memory has made them better than they are.

Neither Shortribs, nor Sheepshanks. Not even Laceleg.

A~Z Reading Challenge “C” title: Elizabeth Bunce’s A Curse Dark as Gold (Arthur A. Levine, 2008).

As I love twisted and/or re-told fairy tales, I was very excited to read Elizabeth Bunce’s A Curse Dark as Gold which is a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin. The story of the greedy miller, the miller’s beautiful daughter, the king, and that weird spinster guy with the thing for babies? We all know the story. Does it need revisioning? Well, yes.

If only so the miller’s beautiful daughter finally has a name.

Upon their father’s death, Charlotte and Rose Miller take on the responsibility of running their family’s (cursed) woolen mill. Rose manages the millworks while Charlotte handles the business end and it looks as if the mill might just manage to survive ... until a seemingly insurmountable debt appears. At a loss, Charlotte makes a bargain with a mysterious man who can spin straw into gold ...

Overall, A Curse Dark as Gold was an enjoyable retelling of an old story. The secondary characters were, for the most part, well drawn and the plot moved a long at a good pace. My only real complaint lay with Charlotte whom I found largely unsympathetic. Yes, I know she fears the Curse. I am told that over and over, again. But that Curse doesn’t appear to drive Charlotte until the end and even then I didn’t feel her fear enough to accept her alienation of everyone around her. Frequently, I wanted to give her a good shaking!

But, heck, who says heroines have to be likeable?